On the first Thursday of every month, we throw it back to a classic political scandal. Today: Debategate!
The Scandal: Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign somehow ends up with the Carter campaign’s debate prep.
The Scandalized: Ronald Reagan, CIA Director (and then-campaign manager) William Casey, other staffers
The Short Version: The year is 1979, and Ronald Reagan is in the process of whupping the unpopular Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race. Reagan wins the first debate en route to a rout on election day, and all is well for the patron saint of the modern Republican Party.
Until, that is, it’s revealed in 1983 that Reagan’s team broke the law. To this day, it’s not totally clear how Reagan’s team got their hands on leaked debate prep materials from the Carter camp, or what exactly was in the documents. But we do know that the materials were classified as “Top Secret,” and that the Reagan campaign kept and used them.
In the grand tradition of post-Watergate scandals, this one quickly got a -gate suffix and became “Debategate.” But details have not come as quickly as the nickname did. Who stole the debate prep book? We still don’t know. Carter, who is still not over this shit, accused columnist George Will in the 2000s – though he later retracted that and apologized. Other, later accounts pinned the blame on Ted Kennedy’s staffers, who were embittered by their defeat in the primary that same year (Kennedy had taken the unusual step of challenging his own party’s incumbent).
At any rate, the debate book allegedly found its way into the hands of Reagan campaign manager William Casey – or so one staffer claimed under oath. Casey, who was CIA Director by the time the story broke, denied it all.
We’ve seen two similar incidents since. In 2000, someone mailed debate prep documents to the Al Gore campaign. Unlike Reagan, Gore’s campaign turned them in to the FBI – though it’s worth noting that the Gore campaign had to be careful at that point, since one of their idiot staffers had been caught bragging about a mole they allegedly had in the Bush campaign. In 2016, the Clinton campaign was tipped off to debate topics by partisan CNN commentator Donna Brazile, which was not a crime but was sleazy as hell and a minor scandal. Brazile got canned by CNN but, naturally, landed at the DNC as interim chair.
Scandal Level: Carter has pinned the blame for his defeat on this incident in the past, but most other observers agree that he was well on his way to getting his ass kicked all by himself anyway. And in the 2000 Gore incident, the FBI looked for a federal law under which to charge a leak like this – and struggled to find one. We’ll call this scandal level… debatable.